We’re bringing back a little feature we started up last season, back before Northwestern was considered a real contender in the Legends Division and a consensus preseason top-25 team. Things were different one year ago, but we were still able, with a similar degree of predictive accuracy, to gauge Northwestern’s 10 most important players. Like last year, it’s important to remember the criteria for this ranking aren’t hard or concrete or anything resembling scientific. They are what we make of them, so make sure to read each explanation before disputing a particular choice. And with that, it’s time to kick off 2013’s preseason most important wildcat countdown.
We're down to the most important player on this year's Northwestern Wildcats, and the pick is no surprise. Venric Mark was one of the most important players to NU's rise last season, and he'll be one of the keys to keeping the Wildcats in contention — and possibly getting them even further. Before Mark and since Tyrell Sutton, NU's run game had struggled. It was no different during Mark's first three years on campus. Mike Trumpy was NU's leading rusher in 2010, with 530 yards, while quarterback Dan Persa had nearly as many at 519. Trumpy got hurt in 2011, meaning Colter was the No. 1 rusher, while Jacob Schmidt led all running backs with 471 yards. Last year, Mark exploded with 1,366 yards. He provided a solid foundation for an offense that sometimes struggled to throw the ball, and he helped spread the field tremendously.
From a running standpoint, Mark can do it all. He has the reputation of being a quick, shifty back, but he has also proven he can run it between the tackles. He also can also spread the field and get around the edge. However, his skill set — along with Kain Colter's — in the zone read and the option is what really makes the offense go. The two of them pad each other's rushing stats, and their chemistry in running the play makes it as effective as possible. Perhaps Mark's best asset is his versatility: he can do just about anything when he gets the ball, and that keeps the defense on their toes and opens up the rest of the offense.
The one knock on Mark is his tendency to put himself in harm's way. He took a lot of big hits last year and knows it:
“I may not be a 200-pound back, but I think I am,” he said at Big Ten Media Days.
NU needs that fearless running style out of Mark, but the Wildcats also need him to know the difference between tough and reckless. He understands that, and he plans on adjusting his running style accordingly so he doesn't miss any time:
“A running back needs to have a lot of tools in his stable,” Mark says. “That goes back to me making smarter decisions.”
A learning moment for Mark came during the second half of last season’s week 3 win over Boston College, when Mark turned the corner on an option play and quickly hit a full-stride gallop, only to be de-cleated by an Eagles defender, who aimed low and planted his helmet into Mark’s lower body.
“I could have jab stepped or cut, but at that moment I was like, ‘I’m going to run him over,’” he said. “He went low on me. That’s something I did not expect, me being so small. Most guys want to tackle me up high.”
The biggest change, according to Mark, is trying to become more elusive. A quick mental rewind of Mark’s 2012 season, wherein he left countless defenders in his wake on punt returns and juked plenty more on handoffs and pitches, would seem to make his proclamation – to become even more elusive – an impossible goal.